As writers we have to think of so many things to get our story to work – interesting characters and places, unexpected turns and twists, impeccable grammar and punctuation and so on, and so on. There are some geniuses out there that do this on instinct (and I hate them for it) but the rest of us have to pay close attention to every little aspect of our story. SETTING is probably one of the most underused writer tools in a story and one that can ruin a whole book just as easily as a dull character or boring, predictable plot.
When I say SETTING I don’t mean simply the way you link a few adjectives and adverbs together so that they sound logical or the act of describing this person or that place. That’s pretty straight-forward. SETTING can do so much more – it can create the basics of your world, show characterization, add conflict, control your pacing, reveal a character’s back story… And if you do it right your words will stay with your reader long after they put the book down.
I have to admit that this is not my strong suit and I know that. I tend to describe things that play no role further into the book and I then do my best to connect those things to tie lose ends. In fact, it should be the opposite – every adjective, every adverb and even every verb you use have to have a purpose, has to reveal something about a character or the plot in order to move the story forward. There is no need to describe the chairs and the table in the room unless you plan to have your character break one of the chairs in the back of their enemy (or their friend) or have sex on the table with the super hot chick from Chapter 6. You get my point, right? Cool.
Choosing the right words, the amount of exposition or description you’ll add to the scene can change the mood and the feeling of the scene so much that it would be like you are reading a totally different book. Same thing applies for choosing the right POV.
In most stories the author sticks to one or two points of view and depending on which one you are using for the chapter or scene your descriptions may vary. If your POV character is a thirteen-year-old teenager then they probably won’t notice the two-hundred-year old painting hanging on the wall by the door, they won’t notice the old, meticulously arranged books on the shelf but they will spot at once the 48-inch TV or the designer dress of their host. What I am trying to learn and start implementing in everything I write is using the SETTING to reveal more about my character’s background and life rather the the info-dumps I find myself writing from time to time. Nobody likes to be told things but it is so hard to convey this information in a way that the reader doesn’t even realize what you have done and yet learns the things you want them to learn.
Another aspect of writing SETTING is using sensory details. We often ignore that (me included) tool but they can evoke feelings and immerse the reader so much easier in the story than two pages of details about the surroundings or the feelings of a particular character. Unless you write a fantasy/sci-fi story that is extremely different from the life on Earth you’re bound to have things all of us have experience at some point – walking through a noisy street, visiting a restaurant or a coffee shop, listening to birds singing etc, etc… All those things we know, we can easily imagine and we can easily connect to no matter which character’s pov is but the trick is to give just enough information without overdoing it. Just as Stephen King said:
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.“
I plan to have another post about this later on and explore each of those things I mentioned in more details but for now I want you to think about it and go over one of your books. Check what you have described, think why you have done this – if your answer is ‘because it is beautiful’ or ‘to get the reader in my world’ then remove it without mercy. Now that you have removed it – is your story broken? Is there some kind of misunderstanding of what is happening or who/what your character is? If the lack of that particular descriptions makes the story confusing or disconnected – add it back in. If not, you honestly don’t need it.
I hope this was helpful for you and got you thinking about what you are doing right/wrong and how you can make it better. 🙂